Hey, You Got Real People in Your Fiction!

In the course of my daily work critiquing manuscripts, editing and ghostwriting, I answer a lot of  questions related to the craft and business of writing. A question that’s come up frequently is whether one could or should use real people in fictional settings.

I recently edited and ”doctored” a manuscript for a client who had written a handful of real-life celebs into his book. In context, this makes perfect sense and giving them fictional identities would lessen the verisimilitude of the story and weak the book. It’s the fact that these people are recognizable for their specific talents that gives their appearance in the story strength and resonance.

Now, I’m sure most BVC readers have noticed the standard disclaimer on the fiction they read—something to the effect that this is a work of fiction and all the people and situations in it are completely made up. The fact that they’re made up using the materials at hand (i.e. real folks and the situations they get themselves into) isn’t addressed. My client wanted to know how the heck they could structure a disclaimer that covered real people. And they wanted to know if they had to get the permission of the celebrities involved to use them in the book.

Here’s what I know from my first hand experience with this. I used baseball writer WP Kinsella in one of the stories I sold to Analog (”Distance”, Analog, February 2003, anthologized in Future Games, Prime Books, December 2012), but the plot was complete fiction. My editor, the amazing and wonderful Stan Schmidt, had me contact Mr. Kinsella to get his permission to use him in the story.

”It’s not legally necessary,” he said, ”but I’d prefer it.”

”Well, that would be ironic,” I told Stan, ”because WP Kinsella used JD Salinger in Shoeless Joe (the book that became the movie Field of Dreams) without asking permission.” Stan held firm. He really, really wanted to make sure it was okay with Mr. Kinsella that I hoist him by his own petard.

Now, Stan Schmidt is someone I would walk over flaming coals for, so I overcame my deeply rooted shyness and, yes, contacted my second favorite writer on the planet (the first being Ray Bradbury) to ask if I could fictionalize him. While I was at it I also contacted the mission director of the space program I used as the framework for the story.


William Patrick Kinsella said “Well, it’d be ironic if I refused to let you use me after what I did to JD Salinger. Actually, it’d be hypocritical. So do what you will.”

The space program, on the other hand, asked me to disguise its name. Not sure why.

Unless things have changed radically since 2003, you can legally use real people—even living ones—in your fiction . . . as long as you don’t say anything derogatory about them that will land you in court facing an angry real person and a libel charge. You should also avoid writing about them in such a way as to cause them mental or emotional anguish. Say for example, that you’re using a traumatic experience they had as a plot point in your book. In that case, you should probably fictionalize everything out of a sense of self-preservation if not human kindness.

Using dead people, especially recently dead people, carries the same caveat. If they have a living family or an estate that is managed by a proxy, you may wish to ask permission, or you may decide to beg forgiveness. My writing team for a recent urban fantasy used Winston Churchill, Francis Galton and several other real life dead people. And yes, there is a point at which a high profile figure becomes collectively ”owned” by the world as a whole. I’m not sure exactly at what point this happens, though, so exercise due caution.

There is another common borrowing from life that writers do that the victims often beg for. I’ve even seen this auctioned off to make money for a convention. I speak, of course, of Tuckerization. This is when a writer uses a person’s name in a story as a sort of inside joke or ’easter egg’. The word was coined from the name of a science fiction writer named Wilson Tucker, who regularly inserted his friends in minor roles in his stories.

I sorta kinda did this to a couple of my friends in Star Wars Legends: The Last Jedi (2013, Del Rey/Lucas Books). The mafiosist club owner on Mandalore who dies (or not) by chandelier is Tyno Fabris, after my friend Tony Fabris. And another of the characters—a little engineering droid named Geri (the little guy on the left)—is a semi-Tuckerization of one of my besties, Gerry Tyra. Originally, Geri was supposed to have been Tyra so that I was Tuckerizing both Gerry and his wife Sandy. (It’s two, two, two peeps in one!)

If you recognized that as a paraphrase of an old commercial jingle, give yourself ninety pun points, which are the unit of currency in the Bohnhoff household. You never know, they may be redeemable for something somewhere down the line. The character became Geri when Tyra was deemed to be too much of a girl’s name (think Tyra Banks) so Geri my little droid became.

Bottom line: if you want to please a friend, or you think a real person—alive or dead—contributes to the telling of your story such that making up a person (even with a similar name and a wink, wink, nod, nod) weakens it, then by all means use that real person. I’ll let you know how my client’s disclaimer works out.



Hey, You Got Real People in Your Fiction! — 2 Comments